KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The sound of Auburn fans roaring as the final seconds ticked off in the Tigers’ Elite Eight 77-71 upset of Kentucky might have been confused for grumbles from the growing crowd of doubters questioning whether John Calipari’s system is broken.
Had one of PJ Washington’s or Keldon Johnson’s shots fallen on the final UK possession of regulation in the overtime loss or had the Wildcats shot something closer to their 74.3 percent mark from the free-throw line instead of hitting just 12 of 21, Calipari might have found the ammunition needed to silence those doubts for good.
Instead, the Wildcats’ season-ending loss turned into a microcosm of the issues plaguing the program in four straight NCAA Tournament finishes before the Final Four.
“The hard thing when you’re coaching young kids — like really young — is that when we had four days to prepare for Houston (in the Sweet 16), we could really dig down and drill and drill,” Calipari said. “When you have 36 hours and you say, ‘Do not let them drive right’ and you show them on tape, you go over it, but you don’t have time — they shot 15 layups right-handed today.
“… When you’re talking 17- and 18-year-old kids, there’s going to be slippage sometime. The same with free-throw shooting. Sometimes you get up against it and you miss some shots.”
Yes, the coach who has built his legacy at Kentucky by recruiting more one-and-done players than any other program has blamed youth and inexperience once again for a season-ending defeat.
And he is probably right — young players are less reliable than experienced ones — but the question has become whether Calipari can adapt to rediscover the form that saw Kentucky reach four Final Fours in his first six seasons as coach.
Relying on freshmen was little problem for those teams, but two included key juniors or seniors inherited by Calipari, and another (2015) boasted an All-American junior in Willie Cauley-Stein who returned to school due to an injury late in his sophomore season.
It is likely no coincidence the Final Four drought has coincided with the program’s inability to sign a consensus top-five-ranked recruit since 2015. Though Duke proved with its loss later Sunday to Michigan State that even having the best freshmen is no guarantee of a Final Four appearance.
Washington looked the part of an All-America caliber talent capable of willing the Wildcats to a deep tournament run while totaling 44 points and 15 rebounds in two games in Kansas City only days after having the hard cast protecting his sprained foot removed. But there was no freshman like Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns on this team to help share the load.
When the Elite Eight loss reached overtime, Calipari had no better options than to continue to ride freshman point guard Ashton Hagans despite his six turnovers at that point or hope freshman guard Tyler Herro could rediscover his shooting stroke after missing 3 of 4 3-pointers and 6 of 9 shots in regulation.
“There are times you have to let guys play through stuff and you got to get them to change on run,” Calipari said. “Then they understand that the only thing they’re trying to conquer is themselves. If you don’t like how you’re playing, change.”
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Calipari’s faith was not rewarded against Auburn. His freshman guards continued to played like freshmen in overtime.
Hagans scored five of Kentucky’s 11 points in overtime but turned the ball over once more at a critical moment. Herro missed both of his shots in the extra period.
Considering Kentucky failed to capitalize on two consecutive favorable paths to the Final Four — Davidson, Buffalo, Kansas State and Loyola in last season and Abilene Christian, Wofford, Houston and Auburn this season — Calipari’s doubters are going nowhere soon.
Now the Hall of Fame coach is faced with another offseason of what is expected to be heavy roster turnover.
Kentucky might have been able to overcome losing the highest-level recruits if more players returned and contributed like Washington did this season, but Calipari has continued to load up on recruits good enough to work their way into first-round draft selections after one year even if they were not quite ready to carry a title contender in the way Davis and Towns did at UK.
The best-case scenario for Kentucky this offseason appears to be losing just Washington, Herro and freshman Keldon Johnson — all projected as first-rounders by ESPN — in addition to graduate student Reid Travis, but recent history suggests more departures either in the form of questionable draft decisions or transfers should be expected.
“We can either quit or it can give you motivation,” said freshman guard Immanuel Quickley, perhaps the safest bet to return to UK next season. “For me, it will give me motivation to continue to work and get back in the gym and just continue to get better at my craft.”
Should Quickley, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Jemarl Baker all return, Calipari will have gone a long way to addressing his experience problem.
“The accelerated pace of this program and how they prepare you, it’s almost like they prepare you in a year to go on and do great things,” Travis said. “So, if the timing doesn’t work for you to leave after a year, you’re so much more ahead of everyone in college basketball because you just did a year of that accelerate pace. So, anyone that comes back, I’d expect them to be dominant and to be able to step right in next year and make some big things happen.”
But if multiple players in that group leave, Calipari will be left to hope another talented recruiting class, currently ranked No. 2 nationally but lacking a top-five talent, is immune from the kind of poor performance that torpedoed Kentucky’s tournament runs the last two years.
“It’s tough for a program,” Travis said. “Obviously when you lose a lot of players each year and you bring in younger guys, you bring in a new team basically, you’ve got to kind of learn on the fly. But I don’t think there’s any other program that can do it the way he does. We have enough talent, guys are really basketball smart and they’re able to do it. It’s not a downfall.”
Maybe Travis is right, but after watching Kansas State and Auburn knock Kentucky out of the tournament with far less NBA-level talent in back-to-back years, people are unlikely to give Calipari the benefit of the doubt anymore.